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The Arkansas Agriculture Department is considering a new 100,000-square-foot headquarters, a surprise to some who work with, and within, the agency.

The department ran a legal notice in Monday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette seeking requests for qualifications from architects and engineers for construction in Pulaski County "of one or more buildings" for the department.

The department's website also posted the request for qualifications although that request for bids was dated Jan. 22 and also called for about 400 parking spaces. That posting also set a tentative dateline for the project, including an Aug. 28 date for the agency's approval of the design, 18 months for construction, and a December 2020 completion date.

The plan came as a surprise to Otis Howe III, chairman of the state Plant Board, one of the main divisions of the department. "You got me," he said Monday morning. "I don't know anything about it."

State Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne and chairman of the state Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Commission, said Monday, "That's news to me."

Caldwell declined to offer an opinion of the proposal until he had a chance to talk to officials with the department.

Created by the General Assembly in 2005, the department is the umbrella agency for the Plant Board, the Livestock and Poultry Commission and the Forestry Commission.

The department is only "exploring the possibility" of a new headquarters and isn't obligated to act on any proposals received, said Adriane Barnes, a department spokesman. The department set a 2 p.m. Feb. 26 deadline for the architecture and engineering qualifications.

"The main objective behind this process is to allow the department to operate at its maximum level of efficiency and improve the quality of services provided to our state's agriculture industry while also seeking to reduce unnecessary costs," Barnes said in a statement. "The department is not obligated to accept or act on any of the proposals received which could also include proposals for renovations to our current facilities."

A new headquarters is "just as up in the air as staying where we are," Barnes said of the department's current headquarters at One Natural Resources Drive in Little Rock.

Barnes said a cost estimate for the project wasn't immediately available on Monday, a holiday, but she did refer to legislation approved last year authorizing -- but not appropriating -- up to $6 million for a new headquarters. The legislation dealt with the state's General Improvement Fund, made up of state surpluses.

Barnes said later in a telephone interview that the department does not have a particular site in mind.

The department does own land of adequate size for such a project -- at the Forestry Commission's Baucum Nursery in North Little Rock -- but that doesn't mean it's a preferred site, Barnes said.

She said top agency staff members developed the proposal with the help of the state Department of Finance and Administration's Building Authority Division. Agriculture officials also worked with the governor's office in developing the plan, she said.

"There has been work with the governor's office on when the time might be right and what would be an appropriate amount for funding," she said. "But, again, this is very early in the process." The proposal isn't scheduled to come before lawmakers during budget hearings that began last week at the Capitol, she said.

Any public discussion, including with the divisions and boards within the agency, will come later, she said.

Over the past couple of years, the department has been moving various components into its headquarters at One Natural Resources Drive in Little Rock, in part to save money but also to make the entire agency more efficient, such as having all its boards and commissions on the same telephone and computer systems.

Only the Bureau of Standards is outside of the main office, Barnes said. The bureau enforces weights and standards at grocery stores, gasoline stations and other businesses.

The Forestry Commission moved from its longtime headquarters on Roosevelt Road to the main office last fall, a move that State Forester Joe Fox estimated at the time would save $60,000 a year.

"Right now, it's working out fine," Barnes said of the consolidation effort. "The biggest concern now is the [Livestock and Poultry] veterinary diagnostic lab, and the Plant Board has a chemical lab and seed lab. There's no immediate problem or concern but eventually equipment will be out of date and we need to plan for the future."

Barnes also said the headquarters also gets a lot of "foot traffic" from taxpayers with "general questions about forestry or pesticides and other issues" and plays host to meetings of "partner" agencies and groups outside state government.

The Plant Board's grappling with the dicamba herbicide problem the past several months has brought a few standing-room-only crowds and prompted the board, for a public hearing last fall, to rent a ballroom at a local hotel.

Larry Jayroe, a Plant Board member and chairman of its pesticide committee, said he knew nothing of the plans but "had heard rumblings about putting everything together, in one building, as we've already been doing."

"If you take a walk through the entire building, though, you can see we're pretty much on top of each other," Jayroe said.

State Desk on 01/16/2018

Print Headline: Agriculture agency looks into site move; State department also open to renovating its HQ in LR

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